Sunday’s highly eventful Clasico, which finished as a 2-2 draw, showed Real Madrid at their best and worst, giving Liverpool fans reason for both optimism and concern for the Champions League final in Kiev on Saturday, 26 May.
The chief hallmarks of this strange season for the Bernabeu giants have been inconsistency and unpredictability – in terms of team selection, tactics and overall quality of performance, and all those ingredients were on display in a frantic night at the Nou Camp.
At times Los Blancos were simply excellent, especially in the final half hour of the opening period when they deservedly equalised through the always dangerous Cristiano Ronaldo, having taken complete control of the game as Barca were unable to keep hold of possession or mount threatening attacks.
But Real ended up having to settle for a share of the spoils after also showing their flaws both individually and collectively, littering their performance with mistakes and occasionally allowing their team shape to become very ragged – despite playing with an extra man for 45 minutes after Sergi Roberto’s sending off just before the break.
Let’s break down a performance which had a bit of good, bad and ugly, perfectly showing both the strengths and weaknesses of Zinedine Zidane’s team and allowing Liverpool fans to believe that although their upcoming opponents are capable of being very good indeed, they are certainly not unbeatable.
Zidane was missing his first-choice right-back Dani Carvajal, but that gave him an opportunity to welcome back the versatile and underrated Nacho after injury. Nacho’s importance is often overlooked – he can play anywhere across the backline and Zidane would have no hesitation in starting him against Liverpool if any of the first-choice back four are injured.
However, on this occasion Nacho looked understandably rusty in his first start for more than a month, and he was replaced for the final stages by Lucas Vazquez – usually a winger – after getting a yellow card and becoming a dismissal risk. Carvajal, who has a hamstring injury, would significantly improve the team if he returns for the Liverpool meeting.
Most of the night, and especially during the first half, Real were solid defensively. Led by outstanding captain Sergio Ramos they pressed with intensity and conviction, closing down the space available to Barcelona with the considerable assistance of defensive midfielder Casemiro.
But there were also some serious lapses, starting with the opening goal which was constructed far too easily by the home team, taking advantage of Real’s very high line with a couple of simple passes to release Roberto, whose unchallenged cross from the right flank was converted by Luis Suarez.
If there’s one thing we know Liverpool can do after their semi-final against Roma, it’s taking advantage of a high defensive line.
As often happens, Marcelo was nowhere to be seen when that goal was scored, with the experienced Brazilian caught well upfield and unable to get back – forcing Nacho to come into the middle and leave Suarez unmarked as he peeled away to the far post.
It doesn’t even really feel right to call Marcelo a defender considering the amount of time he spends around the opposition penalty area, and that is very much a double-edged sword: he is probably the best attacking full-back in the world, but very regularly leaves oceans of space for opponents to exploit behind him.
It’s not by accident that Bayern right-back Joshua Kimmich netted in both legs of the Champions League semi-final, and the pace of Liverpool’s front three on the break could prove to be exceptionally dangerous in Kiev, especially if they can target the left-back slot when Marcelo is nowhere to be seen.
Although Real will feel aggrieved that Suarez clearly appeared to foul Raphael Varane in the build-up to Barcelona’s other goal, brilliantly netted by Lionel Messi, you have to wonder why a team playing against 10 men left themselves so badly exposed after Varane had lost out – and the same applied a little later when Suarez released Messi for a one-on-one chance which goalkeeper Keylor Navas did well to keep out.
There was also another outing for Ramos’ famous lapses in discipline, with the volatile Spain international needlessly getting himself booked after provoking a tussle with Suarez. Ramos was subsequently lucky to escape a second yellow as he fouled Ivan Rakitic, meaning that he could very easily have earned himself a completely unnecessary sending off – not for the first time in his career.
Ramos is always liable to get himself into trouble with officials, and the skill and trickery of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane could force him to walk a disciplinary tightrope once again.
And more generally, this Clasico showed something that has been apparent all season: Real Madrid always give you a chance. With the form they’ve shown in recent months, Salah, Mane and Roberto Firmino should be able to create clear goalscoring chances against this defence.
The established trio of enforcer Casemiro behind ball players Luka Modric and Toni Kroos was selected by Zidane for this game, with versatile Isco injured and wingers Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez on the bench along with energetic Croat Mateo Kovacic.
This was a return to the midfield system used by Zidane for the majority of games during his first season in charge, but less often employed recently as Casemiro has found himself overlooked in favour of Kovacic in several big games, including the second leg against Bayern Munich.
The dilemma with Casemiro is that he is probably Real’s weakest player on the ball but without any doubt their strongest defensive presence front of the back four, where he is able to read the game well and use his powerful physique to break up opposition attacks.
He did that very well in the first half, and with Modric and Kroos pulling the strings while Casemiro dutifully tidied up behind them, Real were able to comfortably take control of the encounter. But Casemiro can be a liability in possession, especially if he is being pressed, and Zidane is clearly torn between his physicality and Kovacic’s greater ball playing skills.
In any case, Zidane could opt for a different set-up altogether, often choosing to play with Asensio and Vazquez as wingers in a 4-4-2 shape, which tends to provide more protection for Marcelo’s rampaging runs and would spread the pitch to make it more difficult for Liverpool’s midfield to employ their preferred pressing tactics.
Considering all the options available to Zidane and his willingness to make full use of them, one of Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp’s biggest difficulties in preparing for the final will be trying to anticipate which system Zidane will employ.
This game was a return to that formation but with a tweak, as Karim Benzema operated from a starting position on the left of the front three to allow Ronaldo to maintain his new role through the middle – although there was plenty of fluidity so their positions were largely interchangeable.
In the first half Benzema and Ronaldo worked very well together, with the Frenchman regularly dropping deep into midfield to link play with Modric and Kroos, while Ronaldo set his sights firmly and fiercely on the Barcelona goal.
Their combination presents a major challenge to Liverpool centre-backs Virgil van Dijk and Dejan Lovren, who will have to decide how to track Benzema’s movement into deeper positions whilst also managing the endless goal threat posed by Ronaldo.
The Portuguese forward was simply excellent against Barcelona. He scored from Benzema’s knockdown, sent a couple of headers over the bar, fired one low shot just wide and had another one well saved.
Ronaldo was a constant goal threat, and Real fans will be praying there’s no serious damage with the foot injury he sustained in the act of scoring and which forced him off at half-time – making his team look considerably less potent in front of goal after the break. His nose for goal is shown by the fact that he had more shots in 45 minutes (seven) than anyone else in the full 90.
And what to make of Bale? On the whole this was a pretty poor performance from the Welshman, whose only significant action in the first half was a vicious studs-up challenge on Barcelona defender Samuel Umtiti which could have easily warranted a straight red card but somehow escaped punishment.
Bale improved after the break but was still largely a fringe presence until he sent a reminder of his undoubted qualities by popping up with a fabulous finish on the edge of the box to secure a draw. Whether that isolated moment in an otherwise disappointing display will be enough to promote him in Zidane’s thinking for Kiev is unlikely, especially when Isco returns to fitness.
But having Bale as the second or third choBeice from the bench shows just how much attacking power Zidane has at his disposal, and assuming Ronaldo’s foot injury is nothing significant it’s clear that Liverpool’s defence had better be ready for a very long night.